Saturday, August 07, 2010


On a silly Saturday, I just can't beat "Basil Marceaux dot com." He is the comic relief winner of this summer's political season.

Of all the amazing things he offers voters, this is the one that I keep chewing on:


Friday, August 06, 2010

Sandel 10: Obligations of Solidarity are Only Trumped By Higher Obligations of Solidarity

My Theory Camp has been wrestling with Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent and Justice. Here is the best new idea I have had from reading these books:

If I have obligations of solidarity within an institution, I can choose to leave the institution, but only to serve a higher obligation.

Under a liberal theory, I can unchoose a practice if I simply no longer wish to do it. Since all the ends I pursue are ones I have chosen, there is no higher standard or obligation than my choosing it. However there are some institutions that require their members to have obligations of solidarity to one another if they are to function. Choosing that kind of institution means that I have also chosen to be obliged to remain in solidarity with the others in the institution because it does harm to those others if I simply quit.

In practice, we might leave the choice up to individuals to decide if the other obligation was, indeed, higher. In that case, from the outside, liberal quitting and solidarity quitting might look the same. However, from the inside, my motive, and my calculation, would be quite different. I would need to be able to justify to myself that I was leaving one obligation for a higher one. It would not be sufficient to quit an obligatory solidarity just because I feel like it, or because I don’t feel what I used to, or because it doesn’t meet my needs any more.

Allowing people to choose to solidary institutions for a higher obligation would let us reconcile the obligation with the reality of freedom.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Sandel 9: Marriage as an Obligation of Solidarity

The crucial idea that Michael Sandel works toward at the end of Justice is that we have obligations that extend beyond the ends we have chosen: we have obligations of solidarity. Communitarians, like Sandel, argue that we have obligations to our several communities because we are members of them, shaped by them, sharing their lives.

His most powerful case, I think, is our obligations of patriotism. We have a strong obligation to our country. I can imagine circumstances in which someone would have to renounce that obligation to serve another, higher obligation. But the cases in which people actually do renounce their citizenship on principle are extraordinarily rare.

I think marriage is a solidarity that we choose. When we choose it, though, it creates an obligation of solidarity that is like our obligation to our country. It is a deep, enduring obligation. It can, in principle, be cast off, but only for the rarest and most compelling of reasons.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Sandel 8: Fear is the Basis of the Neutral State

Michael Sandel, in Justice, contrasts Aristotle's view that the end of politics is to form good citizens, with the modern idea that the state should be neutral about which ends citizens choose to seek.

In Democracy's Discontent, Sandel showed that when American democracy was established, the state was more Aristotelian than neutral. In fact, the ancient philosophers thought democracy would be a terrible form of government, because most people could not be formed into decent enough citizens to use their democratic powers rightly. The founders of the American republic knew that, and deliberately created institutions to form Americans into worthy democratic citizens. The idea that the state should not try to form citizens, but just provide a neutral framework for their self-seeking, is a recent idea. The jury is still out on whether it can work.

I have been trying to imagine who benefits from the idea of the neutral state. The arguments for it usually rely on the fears of minorities that they will forced to conform to the majority's ends.

I think fear is an impossible basis for a stable society. If American democracy is to endure, it has to renew trust that the state, along with the other institutions of society, can rightly help form citizens toward a common understanding of the good.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Sandel 7: Was the Social Contract Ever Meant to be Taken Literally?

In Michael Sandel's Justice, he gives a wonderfully clear account of Kant's and Rawls' social philosophy. In placing Kant's views of the social order Sandel reviews the whole tradition of social contract theories. Sandel then shows how Rawls ingeniously solves the problem of the historical implausibility of an actual social contract by turning the whole metaphor into a thought experiment. We do not have to believe that there ever was an actual social contract, Rawls argues - we can imagine ourselves in an "original position" as generic human beings without particular qualities to see what kind of social contract we would make in such circumstances.

I was surprised at how much space Sandel gave to the argument about whether there was an historical social contract, and if so whether a contract made by our social predecessors could really bind us. This book grows out of his long and rich experience teaching about justice to Harvard undergraduates. Do those smart kids really think that Hobbes, or Rousseau, or Mill thought that society was born in an actual gathering in the woods?

I assume from the fact that Sandel takes the time to explain how the idea of a social contract works without entailing an historical contract-making that this is an important issue to his students. My best guess is that what they are concerned about is not the historicity of the event. Rather, they believe that if they or their predecessors did not consent to society, then they are not bound by it. No agreement, no contract.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Sandel 6: Libertarianism is About Allodialism

My Theory Camp worked through Michael Sandel's Democracy's Discontent last week. This week we are reading his Justice.

Sandel's chapter on libertarianism is entitled "Do we own ourselves?" I have long thought that libertarians have a very restricted and peculiar idea of liberty. Sandel helps me see that what is really wrong is with their conception of the self. Libertarianism is a distinctively modern idea of the self because it is based on a distinctively modern idea of property.

Pre-modern property was based on shared ownership, rather than a sole right to do anything to your property. This is the difference between feudal property - the basic idea behind feudalism - and modern allodial property. Allodialism is the idea that if you own something, you own all the rights to it and can do anything you want to your property, including destroy it.

We can kind of accept the allodial idea when we are talking about replaceable objects. Allodialism gets to be iffy when we apply it to unique objects, like art or land. Allodialism shows itself to be a completely inadequate idea of what property is when we apply it to non-objects - slaves, babies, and ourselves. The core problem with libertarian ethics is that it makes people reduce their notion of their self to that of an object that they own, with no meaning or destiny of its own.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

More on Denominations

Last Sunday I wrote about how denominationalism and civil religion are complements.

My friend Barry Ensign-George asked, quite reasonably, for some elaboration. He particularly wanted some explication of my claim that denominationalism "really can only be fully embraced by people who do not think the differences between denominations matter." Fair enough.

My focus was on religion as a basis of social integration. This is why I contended that civil religion is the necessary complement of denominationalism. To be a denomination is, of necessity, to be part of a larger whole, and to accept the equal legitimacy of the other parts. This is most clearly so when talking about different denominations of the same religion, as with the Presbyterian Church and the Catholic Church. We have also extended this idea to include the equal legitimacy of different religions, as among Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist religious institutions.

To accept that other denominations are legitimate religious institutions does not mean that we think all denominations teach the same thing, or that the differences are not significant to some extent. But to be a denominationalist - to be a citizen in a denominational society - is to accept that the differences among the denominations are less important than their common embrace of the concept or doctrine of denominationalism. Denominations are tolerant; they tolerate other denominations. Religious institutions that do not accept the principle of denominationalism put themselves at odds with the whole culture. If they act upon that rejection against other religious institutions in a physical way by, say, burning heretics or blowing up infidels, they put themselves outside the civil order religiously.

The main argument I was making in the previous post is that a mere belief in denominationalism is not enough of a religious faith to hold a society together. Therefore, civil societies also need some kind of positive cult (in the Durkheimian sense) - some active beliefs and rituals shared with other citizens as citizens. This is where the civil religion comes in, and why it is necessary.

Presbyterians, such as Barry and myself, can be good Presbyterians and good citizens because we accept denominationalism. We can hold that the Presbyterian understanding of the faith is correct - as long as we also accept the legitimacy of other denominations in our society.